Observations and musings on Jacksonville Politics

Crist Enjoys High Approval Rating

Courtesy of HeraldTribune.com:

A bad economy, tax increases and his announcement he’s leaving the governors mansion still wasn’t enough to hurt Gov. Charlie Crist’s approval ratings among Florida voters.

According to a Stategic Vision poll released Friday, 62 percent of 1,200 people polled from May 29 to May 31 said they approve of Crist’s job performance. That is two percentage points higher than President Barack Obama’s approval ratings among Floridians according to the poll.

Crist’s approval ratings have been over 60 percent since he took office in 2007.

The poll shows how tough of a Senate candidate he will be to beat for both Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek.

In the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, 59 percent of Republicans supported Crist while 22% supported Rubio, the former Florida House Speaker. About 19 percent were undecided.

In a potential match-up between Crist and Meek in a general election, 59 percent of respondents picked Crist, 29 percent supported Meek. About 12 percent were undecided.

Other approval ratings in the poll: Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, was at 55 percent and Sen. Mel Martinez, a Republican, was at 45 percent.

Filed under: Florida, Florida Politics,

Kill Destructive Water Bill

The Orlando Sentinel weighs in on the legislation (SB 2080) that would cut out the water management district’s Governing Board members in permitting decisions and turn those decisions over to the district’s executive directors. If the legislation becomes law, the only way Board members would hear permitting decisions were if the district staff recommended denial of the permit. As it turns out Kirby Green, Executive Director of the St. Johns River Water Management District, supports the legislation. Surprise! I guess he doesn’t need 19,000 pesky Floridians trying to weigh in with his Governing Board members anymore on the St. Johns River water withdrawal permit for Seminole County, among other things.  The Orlando Sentinel editorial requests Crist to veto the bill.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Taxpayers to Feel the Cost of Sprawl

Late yesterday afternoon, without fanfare or a public signing ceremony, the Governor quietly signed the growth managment legislation (SB 360) into law. Charles Pattison, Executive Director of 1000 Friends of Florida, shares his thoughts in a Tallahassee Democrat editorial column today.

This year’s growth management bill, SB 360, was opposed by most of the leading newspapers and conservation, planning and advocacy organizations, including 1000 Friends of Florida, the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties. The governor signed the bill Monday afternoon, despite many requests to veto it.

The good stated intent of this bill was to promote a jobs and economic recovery strategy with incentives for new growth and development locating into “dense urban land areas” where it is appropriate while preventing sprawl into rural and undeveloped agricultural and natural areas.

Who could argue with that? That would be anyone who understood that “1,000 people/square mile,” the qualifying standard, misses the mark by a factor of 10. A density of one dwelling unit/acre or less is hardly urban, and it certainly is not dense. Although changes were made to tighten this definition, it was not enough, as evidenced by the 245 cities and eight counties that automatically “qualify.” There is even a generous additional allowance for nonqualifying cities and counties to designate certain areas for the same incentives.

Those incentives include waivers for transportation concurrency and the elimination of the Development of Regional Impact (DRI) program within the qualifying areas. These incentives were seen by most advocates as positive so long as they were focused in the “correct” areas. But when these incentives are given across too broad an area, areas that are not really urban or dense are included.

In waiving transportation concurrency, the local government financial underpinning for dealing with transportation impacts will be undercut. Local governments will have to develop “strategies” within two years to fund and implement transportation options, but that is much less certain and clear-cut than were existing statutory options for creating concurrency-free zones. Losing the ability to deal with substantial transportation impacts caused by DRIs, and the elimination of the flawed but important proportionate-share cost requirements, rightly alarmed local governments and the public.

Add to this the elimination of a coordinated local-government process for addressing real extra-jurisdictional development impacts, and you have the makings for ending any coordinated growth management.

For the Tallahassee area, this new law would mean that projects inside our urban services area, such as Fallschase, Welaunee Plantation and SouthWood, would have paid no road-improvement costs. With impact fees, that would be different, but we don’t have them in Tallahassee. Unless the public wants to pay, all of those impacted roads will only get more congested. Similar examples exist statewide.

Job creation is important if “relaxing” some of the current growth controls helped. The problem is the current backlog of more than 300,000 vacant dwelling units, but this is not the whole story. There are hundreds of thousands of additional approved but unbuilt dwelling units and millions of square feet of commercial and institutional space. Not included are the even larger numbers that the Department of Community Affairs has to consider now in numerous plan amendments. Relaxing growth controls has nothing to do with “creating” jobs — the jobs are there, and the projects are ready to go, but the financing is missing.

The development of a mobility fee to replace the balkanized transportation concurrency process, and the community land-trust language added as part of an extensive affordable-housing amendment, are positive. However, in addition to the other problems already noted, there remain unnecessary limitations on new affordable-housing developers, mandatory recognition of existing residential densities, and the option of designating urban service areas for the “lessened” growth controls without substantive state oversight.

What was intended as a scalpel for some selective, focused growth-management improvements turned into a sledgehammer with many unintended consequences.

Think of this as a “tax” either falling onto taxpayers to cover what should be legitimate developer costs or a further decline in our quality of life, which is already strained.

Filed under: Florida, Florida Legislature, Florida Politics, , , ,

The Yellow Brick Road

With the recent opening of the Riverside Arts Market, the Jazz Festival on Laura Street, the Sail Jacksonville Tall Ships this weekend, and the Mayor’s announcement that he would focus his last two years in office on the river and downtown, it seems like downtown is becoming the place to be.  While these are great developments that are badly needed in Jacksonville, it may be wise to take a step back and lay a foundation to ensure the continued success of the urban core area.  In addition, the City also needs to lay the groundwork for a great mass transit system.  (Of course, that’s a little hard to do when the JTA folks don’t show up to their own public meetings.)  Otherwise, we’re potentially building our efforts on shifting sand – with one shot events that never have enough substance to result in a permanent or vibrant downtown.

In order to see where we want to go as a city, exercises like the recent Reality Check are certainly helpful to picture exactly how we would like Jacksonville to look.  However, in order for that vision to be successful we have to build the “regulatory” structure to ensure that we are encouraging the right development in the right place.  And that means we should examine the existing structure – the comprehensive plan, zoning code, subdivision regulations – and investigate new options such as urban growth boundaries and other measures that will discourage greenfield development and revitalize neighborhoods, protect open space, keep housing affordable, and provide more transportation choices.

Jacksonville is unique in its consolidated government, but that uniqueness has also caused us to have growth problems.  Other municipalities have boundaries within incorporated areas; our municipal boundary is the county line, giving lots more opportunities for sprawl than normally found in other cities.  While Jacksonville is more similar to Miami-Dade County, even Miami-Dade has numerous cities within the county boundaries. It also has an established urban growth boundary.

For many years, I-295 was Jacksonville’s defacto urban growth boundary.   Many developments sprang up, with the common joke being that the City rarely met a development it didn’t like.  Comprehensive plan amendments were passed out like candy treats.  Rezonings occurred in some cases with zoning signage laying down on the ground of the property to be rezoned, effectively eliminating input from potentially affected parties.   In  addition, transpostation concurrency funds paid by developers and intended to mitigate impacts to existing roads went missing from city accounts.  In some cases, roads or other improvements were not built ahead of the new or additional development, but rather waited until development was finished, if the improvements were built at all.  (See Council Auditor Report # 621.) Then in 2007, the Legislature passed HB 7203.  This legislation began a pilot project for several commuities, including Jacksonville, that allowed them to avoid state review for numerous development projects.  And so we find ourselves in the current situation – crowded streets, long commutes, and car-dependent.

This year, the Legislature passed what was supposed to be a glitch bill (SB 360) to fix some of the unintended consequences of previous growth management legislation.  However, the bill that passed will be of no help to Jacksonville’s growth management and mass transit advocates.

According to the Department of Community Affairs (DCA), although SB 360 was intended to direct growth into urban areas, its implementation will present significant isssues and challenges.  For example, the legislation eliminates transportation concurrency and the DRI process (the primary regulatory tools for mitigating local and regional transportation impacts of development) without providing for any alternative methods of addressing these impacts.  Eliminating these tools without putting anything in their place will weaken the state’s growth management process according to the DCA.

In addition, if SB 360 becomes law, Jacksonville, along with 200+ cities, will automatically become a transportation concurrency exception area shortly ater July 1, 2009.  The legislation does not provide any transition period for Jacksonville and the other cities to adopt local replacements to transportation concurrency.  According to DCA”s analysis, the abrupt termination of transportation concurrency is likely to cause confusion and controversy and generate litigation over the power of local governments to adopt replacements for transportation concurrency.  DCA states that already there have been suggestions that local governments may need to adopt moratoria to give time to adopt new regulations.   The lack of regulatory certainty and predictability may impede, rather than encourage, economic development.

The Act contemplates future adoption of a mobility fee to replace transportation concurrency, but there is no guarantee that the Legislature will adopt a mobility fee system.  DCA and the FL Department of Transportation are required to put together recommendations for a mobility fee system to be provided to the Legislature by December 2009. However, even if the Legislature should adopt a mobility fee system in 2010, implementation may take a year or two.

According to DCA, the Act also creates substantial new workloads for local governments and DCA without providing any new resources to accomplish the tasks.  As a transportation concurrency exemption area, Jacksonville is now required to adopt land use and transportation strategies within 2 years to support and fund mobility, including alternative modes of transportation, such as mass transit.  Additionally, other local governments are authorized to adopt urban service boundary amendments that would also trigger these same requirements.  This could be a very expensive and onerous task – yet no financial support or new revenue sources have been provided to undertake this planning.

Further, until December 2011, local government commitments to provide potable water, wastewater, drainage, parks, solid waste, and public schools will not be subject to a demonstration that improvements adequate to achieve and maintain level of service standards will be supported by committed funding in the first 3 years of the capital improvement schedule.  This is critical for water supply, where the Legislature has mandated that the water management districts and local governments adopt 20 year and 10 year, respectively, water supply work plans, the first 5 years of which must be in the capital improvement schedule.

Finally, the legislation may create a stampede of plan amendments to take advantage of relaxed planning requirements.  DCA reports that it has already experienced an increase in the volume and geographic scale of future land use map amendments over the past two years.  DCA speculates that some of these increases may have been due to increased concerns over the Hometown Democracy constitutional amendment which may be on the ballot in 2010.

Numerous local governments, growth management advocates, newspaper editorial boards, and now CFO Alex Sink, have called for Governor Crist to veto the bill.  In addition, in a recent Jacksonville Business Journal poll, voters were 2 to 1 against relaxing growth management laws.   Governor Crist has yet to show which way he’s leaning, but with the deadline for gubernatorial action fast approaching (June 2nd), rumors have abounded that Crist may allow the legislation to become law without his signature.  If SB 360 does become law, Jacksonville potentially could be without a meaningful growth management regulatory structure for up to three years.

As Adam Smith, a reporter for the St Pete Times, recently tweeted: If Crist signs a growth management bill panned by all enviros and editorial boards – groups he cares about – should we assume his motivation is strictly donors?

Filed under: Florida, Florida Legislature, Florida Politics, Jacksonville, Jacksonville City Council, Mayor of Jacksonville, , , , , , , , , , ,

A Transparent Florida on the Way

Some good news for Florida’s citizenry:  on Wednesday, Governor Crist signed the Transparency Florida Act into law – making it easier for citizens to track state spending down to state workers’ cell phones and agency cable television charges. The legislation requires the Governor’s Office to create a website that provides information on every appropriation found in the General Appropriation Act for each branch of state government and state agency. At a minimum, the data must include expenditures, appropriations adjustments, the status of spending authority for each appropriation, and position and rate information on state employees (but not their names).  

The Joint Legislative Auditing Committee will oversee the website and will propose additional phases of information to be made available. The committee will provide a proposal by March 1, 2010, to be submitted to the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate, that will include a schedule of additional phases of information by the type of information to be provided for specific governmental entities, including local government units, community colleges, state universities and other government entities that receive state appropriations.

The first installment of expenditure information will likely be available to taxpayer scrutiny by July of this year.  While the Transparency Forida Act is not necessarily everything one could want in terms of level of detail (the required information for now is restricted to information currently available in the financial management system and for expenditure information extends to the name of the payee, the date of the expenditure, the amount of the expenditure and the statewide document number), it certainly is a big step in the right direction.

Filed under: Florida, Florida Legislature, Florida Politics, , ,

Back to the Future

Courtesy of the Sarasota Herald Tribune:

The 1960s. Ah yes. Those were the good old days when fast-talking developers could divvy up swampland, sell it to Yankees and skip town, leaving it to someone else to pave the roads and extend the water lines and build the schools for all the newcomers.

It won’t be a pretty place.

Now, we are taking a giant step back to those times courtesy of the Florida Legislature and Senate Bill 360, awaiting the governor’s signature.

OK, it’s not quite that bad, but, under the guise of more local control, the legislation does gut some key growth management protections of the last two-plus decades.

For instance, rules now require that an area have adequate roads to handle a development, whether it’s a residential subdivision or a Super Wal-Mart. Under the new legislation, developers would pay less, and you-know-who would pay more when roads have to be built. In the meantime, we’ll all sit in traffic jams.

The old rules tried to ensure that schools had enough classroom space to accommodate a new development. The new legislation would count portables as part of that capacity. Sure, students can learn in portables, but installing them smacks of afterthought, hardly an image we want to foster in legislation that pretends to advocate sound planning principles.

The new proposal would also practically eliminate the Development of Regional Impact concept, which acknowledges that a large development in one area can create expensive problems for an adjoining area, problems that have to be addressed before approval.

In the short term, the erosion of growth management might create a few jobs and line a few pockets, but it would cost someone dearly.

If growth does not pay for itself, existing residents have to pay, starting with the owners of the 300,000 houses sitting vacant statewide right now.

If they wanted to stimulate the economy, legislators could have concocted incentives for businesses trying to develop alternative energy sources. That might have encouraged a different type of growth, one not dependent on a population explosion.

Instead, state lawmakers fell back on the same old, same old. They raised taxes on cigarettes and drivers licenses. They talked about drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

And, they tried to jumpstart what they hope will be the next real estate boom to be followed by the inevitable bust.

Back to the future.

Filed under: Florida, Florida Legislature, Florida Politics, , , ,

Busy Week on Tap for Governor and Taxpayers

While the 2009 legislative session saw the Florida Legislature passing the lowest number of bills since 1998, the governor will have plenty of opportunities to make people happy or mad (or both) this coming week.  A whole host of legislation (with a deadline for gubernatorial action fast approaching) is on the governor’s desk waiting for his return  from  the holiday weekend.   These bills include some of the session’s most controversial and significant proposals:  workers compensation attorney’s fees, cigarette taxes, increased motor vehicle fees and taxes, and the budget.  The governor can sign, veto, or allow to become law without signature any piece of legislation that comes to his desk.  In addition, he can exercise line item veto authority on the budget. 

But while taxpayers are waiting and watching for the governor’s actions on bills that could potentially end up costing them more money, lobbyists are sitting safe at home counting their cash.  While the legislature was grappling with a $6 billion budget hole, it seems 4 lobbying firms were raking in the money.  According to the St. Pete Times, GrayRobinson PA, Ronald L. Book PA, Smith & Ballard, and Southern Strategy Group made more than a million dollars between January and March 2009.  Since the two-month legislative session straddled two quarters, lobbyists earned even more money to influence legislators and Crist’s administration during the entire session that ended May 8th. 

AT&T hired more than three dozen lobbyists and spent as much as $1 million, more than any other company.  U.S. Sugar Corp. spent the second-highest individual sum on lobbyists, up to $476,000.  Gambling interests spent a maximum of about $1.3 million on lobbyists, while the energy industry spent about $1.4 million.  The tobacco industry spent as much as $689,000.  

Many of them will find out this week whether or not their money was well spent.

Filed under: Florida, Florida Legislature, Florida Politics, , , , , ,

Growth Management Legislation Could Boost Hometown Democracy

According to an article in the NY Times:

More than 300,000 residential units sit empty across Florida, 64,588 properties were in foreclosure last month, second only to Nevada, and real estate prices are still plummeting.

Nonetheless, state lawmakers are making it easier for developers to add even more.

Gov. Charlie Crist now has a bill on his desk, which he said Wednesday he “probably will” sign, that would ease government oversight and exempt many areas from a requirement that says builders must pay for road improvements if traffic generated by their projects exceeds the local capacity.

Now that Florida’s citizenry has seen exactly what the Legislature intends to do with Florida’s growth management laws, could the hometown democracy constitutional amendment gain new steam?  The ballot initiative currently has an unofficial 665,499  out of a needed 676,811 signatures in order to be placed on the 2010 ballot.  But if Governor Charlie Crist signs SB 360 into law, I think we can look for a rise in signatures to occur.  So far, SB 360 has gained criticism from local governments, growth management advocates, and environmentalists from far and wide throughout the state – with a normally staid group like the Florida Association of Counties calling on Crist to veto the bill.  With that kind of opposition, could passage of the Florida Hometown Democracy Amendment be far behind?  Only about 12,000 more votes are needed by January 31, 2010 in order to assure that the constitutional amendment makes it on the 2010 ballot.  If you’re interested in Florida Hometown Democracy, click here for more information.

Read the rest of the NY Times article here.

Filed under: Florida, Florida Legislature, Florida Politics, , , ,

Traffic Jam Charlie or Governor Gridlock?

That’s what the Governor will be called if he fails to veto the growth management bill, according to a state newspaper and growth management supporters.

The heat is being turned up on Governor Crist to veto a bill that would, according to the sources, make radical changes to the state’s growth management programs.  According to the Orlando Sentinel political blog, the Florida Association of Counties recently sent a letter to Crist outlining the reasons why he should veto the bill.

The bill, SB 360, is a dramatic departure from the growth management reform lawmakers passed in the midst of boom times back in 2005. Instead of strengthening transportation “concurrency,” the bill repeals it throughout most of the state, along with getting rid of other regulations on large-scale developments.

“If implemented, this bill will have a far reaching impact on our state, affecting not only the quality of life of its citizens but also its economy, creating conditions unfavorable to new and existing businesses,” wrote FAC Chairman Rodney Long, an Alachua County commissioner, to Crist Friday.

“Eliminating transportation concurrency will lead to Florida’s residents and businesses actually suffering in the long run,” he added. “Communities that have transportation deficiencies, poor access, and excessive commute times are ones that business rarely looks to when starting new or expand existing businesses.  Given the existing transportation backlog of our state – estimated between $20 – $30 billion – the (transportation exemption areas) statewide will only worsen our state’s transportation network.

“As proposed under the bill, road capacity no longer has to be in place or even planned for development to proceed. The result: congested areas will simply become gridlocked, and the countless businesses that rely on an efficient transportation system will experience extensive delays that will have immeasurable financial impacts.”

Read the county association’s entire veto letter here.

The bill was sponsored by Senator Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, a real estate developer who has been quoted in the past as saying he expects Crist to sign the bill.  But when the counties’ association weighs in opposing the bill, I wonder how sure of that Bennett can be. 

Btw, only two of the Duval Delegation members voted “no” to the growth management bill on the floor – Audrey Gison and Mia Jones.

Filed under: Florida, Florida Legislature, , ,

Veto Letters on Bad Cops Bill Start Rolling In

The Director of the Miami-Dade Police Department sent a letter to the Governor requesting he veto the Bad Cops  Bill.  As published in the Miami Herald today:

Bill would impede investigations of police wrongdoing

I urge Gov. Crist to veto the Police Officer’s Bill of Rights legislation, SB 624, as it will severely impact law-enforcement agencies in conducting internal investigations. Although it addresses administrative investigations, many criminal investigations become administrative investigations for any number of reasons. These cases can erode the public trust.

Under the proposed changes, officers under investigation will have unprecedented rights not afforded anyone else in civil, criminal or administrative matters and have access to all investigative items contained in the investigative files.

The bill arose from a Tampa Police Department investigation involving officers accused of billing the agency for hours they didn’t work. The officers denied the allegations under oath until confronted with GPS reports from their vehicles. The officers said they would have admitted to their wrongdoing, instead of perjuring themselves, if they had known about the GPS devices in their vehicles.

Aren’t police officers supposed to tell the truth? This type of behavior will be protected by the bill, which will discredit law enforcement. This provision is ripe for abuse: If an officer feels his or her rights have been violated and if the investigator fails to cure the violation or continues the violation after being notified, the officer can request that the agency head be informed of the violation. If the allegations against the investigator are sustained, they will be forwarded to the Criminal Justice Standard and Training Commission for review as an act of official misconduct or misuse of position.

The bill’s language is vague and offers great potential for abuse by officers under investigation who could try to derail an investigation.

We would have to explain to the public that complaints against officers will not be investigated because the bill provides officers with more rights than any other government employee or citizen. This will erode relationships and trust built with the community.

This bill will impede the ability of police to investigate allegations of wrongdoing and allow officers to continue employment without repercussion. The current statute preserves the officers’ rights without limiting the agencies’ authority to conduct internal-affairs investigations. I encourage the governor to veto this bill for the men and women in law enforcement and the community we serve.

ROBERT PARKER, director, Miami-Dade Police Department, Miami

Filed under: Florida, Florida Legislature, , , ,

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